In a Medicare Maze


I used to be horrified at the thought of privatizing Medicare, but now  I am not so sure. How much worse could it get? My experience with the present system has been truly bizarre.

Many moons ago, I belonged to a Medicare Advantage program called Quality Health Plans, and it went belly up. So I joined another program called Physicians United Plan (PUP). It was one of those really cheap plans – no monthly premium, minimal co-pays and so on. It seemed too good to be true, and apparently it was because two months ago it also collapsed.

As soon as I found out, I got on the web and compared various Medicare Advantage providers to see which would offer me the best deal. I settled on Coventry.

That was in mid-June and I couldn’t get enrolled until July 1, but the pharmacy assured me Medicare was paying for my prescriptions until my new plan kicked in.

It turns out that Medicare was doing no such thing. What Medicare did was hand me over to AARP.

(I know, I thought buying and selling human beings was obsolete, but apparently not.)

Imagine my surprise when I received a little coupon book from some United Health Care program. Apparently, I was now committed to paying these folks a monthly premium (I think it was $21).

I got on the phone and yelled at a United Health Care rep, but that didn’t do any good. So I mailed them the $21 under protest and told the rep to cancel my “membership.”

But that was not the end of it.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a letter from Coventry telling me that there was an “adjustment’ of $42 to my account “from my previous provider.” The letter seemed to be in some kind of code, so I was not sure what was being “adjusted” but I was relieved to note that “no payment was beng requested at this time.”

I called Coventry, and their customer service representative figured the adjustment had to do with co-pays I was expected to make during the time I was assigned (unknowingly) to AARP.

Still fuming from this outrage, I went to the pharmacy on Friday to pick up a couple of generic prescriptions. To my horror, I was told there was a co-pay of $12 and some cents.

As soon as I got home, I tried to call Coventry, and spent an hour listening to some really irritating music before I found out their Customer Service Department was closed.

After fuming all weekend, I called them this morning, and got hold of a pleasant young lady. But she couldn’t tell me what was going on. After an extended chat about my date of birth and address and so on, she told me I had to talk to someone in Pharmacy, and asked me to hold. The music was much better this time, the wait was much shorter, and the Pharmacy rep was very polite.

But she had bad news. I was in the doughnut hole.

Already? I don’t usually get in the doughnut hole till November. Where did they get their figures? From PUP?

She didn’t know anything about that. I would have to ask Customer Service. Transfer me, I pleaded.

Back at Customer Service, I talked to a nice young man, who told me that the figures came from Medicare. Coventry had no access to any figures from my previous providers.

So on to Medicare, where I eventually managed to negotiate one of those infuriating machines and get to a human voice. No, the voice said, they did not give any figures to Coventry. They have no record of my pharmacy expenditures. Only PUP would have that. And PUP no longer exists.

I was beginning to feel like the banker in Kafka’snovel.

What could I do? I could speak to a supervisor.

So I did. And the supervisor told me the same story. I was in the doughnut hole based on figures which were no longer available. So there.

Was there nothing I could do to find out more? She would refer my case to Advanced Resolutions. They would call me within two business days.

Perhaps they will be able to solve the mystery of my missing pharmacy expenditures. Or perhaps not.

Click for more on Medicare Part D.


The UN Steps in – Sort of



I suppose striking at the pocketbooks of terrorists is an effective tactic over the long term, but how I wish the UN could get its act together and become a real world police force.

The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution banning purchases of oil and other products from the terrorists. Financiers, arms dealers, traders and member states face “punitive action” for buying their illicit oil and other black market wares.

Anyone caught doing business with the terrorists will face such penalties as international travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes. Member states will also be prohibited from making available to the lawbreakers “any funds, financial assets or economic resources or financial or other related services.”

One of the most horrific groups, ISIS, derives around $2 million a day from black market oil. This terrorist organization also finances its evil operation through extortion, kidnapping, arms deals and sales of looted antiquities

They use the money to buy arms and operate government facilities in an ever-growing swath of the Syria-Iraq region, which they have declared “the Islamic State.”

Of course there are those who will ignore the UN sanctions – or find ways of getting around them. Money is a powerful incentive, and decency is rare in the arena of global trade. Also, thousands of ISIS members have western passports, which makes it a lot easier for the terrorists to launder money.

It doesn’t look like much of a response to the barbarism of ISIS. I want to see those blue helmets in Syria and Iraq. I want to see the UN keeping the peace with boots on the ground.

I am puzzled by the way UN peacekeeping has kind of fizzled in recent years although I realize there have been failures and criticism of the way the concept has been implemented.

I read in Wikipedia that there was “a rapid increase in prostitution in Cambodia, Mozambique, Bosnia, and Kosovo after UN and, in the case of the latter two, NATO peacekeeping forces moved in.” And there was that deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti a few years back that was blamed on aNepalese Peacekeeping troop.

But the UN has been earnestly trying to reform its peacekeeping operations. With any luck, the organization will one day become a more cohesive force for good, able and willing to keep the world safe.

In the meantime, I suppose economic sanctions will have to suffice.

And, sadly, it will be up to the super powers – especially the United States – to shoulder the responsibility of ridding the world of the terrorist blight.

Click for more on the UN resolution.

Click for more on global peacekeeping.


What Family Values?

Republican Gubernatorial Canidate Bob McDonnell Campaigns In Alexandria, VA


When it comes to family values, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (above with wife Maureen) used to be among the true believers – at least on paper. In his 1989 master’s thesis – “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade” – McDonnell earnestly defended the sanctity of marriage and the role of the family in keeping society strong.

Influential Republican leaders thought he was the kind of family man  who would make a fine running mate for Mitt Romney. Some pundits even talked about his chances of becoming President some day.

That was then. This is now.

In a desperate attempt to avoid jail time, McDonnell  is smearing his wife’s reputation and trashing their marriage.

Here’s the deal. Under Virginia law, public officials can accept “gifts” as long as they don’t do favors in return. McDonnell is in court because he allegedly did both. He – and his sons- played golf at a fancy country club. He drove around in a Ferrari. He vacationed at a luxurious resort. He and his sons got golf clubs for free – all paid for by rich businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Williams even underwrote the wedding of the then-governor’s daughter…. and bought him an engraved Rolex.

McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, also benefited from Williams’ largesse. Court records show Williams spent nearly $20,000 buying her gifts at luxury stores in New York City. He even bought a $1,690 dress for her chief of staff.

Prosecutors also say Williams provided a loan to bail out troubled MoBo Real Estate Partners LLC — which McDonnell owned with his sister.

None of it would have been illegal under Virgina’s lenient laws if the governor did no favors in return. But Williams testified the gifts were intended to buy support for his Anatabloc dietary supplement. And prosecutors said the governor provided that support, introducing the company to Virginia health officials and suggesting to state universities that they conduct studies related to the product.

The McDonnells also hosted a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to celebrate the launch of Anatabloc in stores. Samples of the supplement were provided at the visitors’ place settings

But McDonnell denies tany quid pro quo. He would have done as much for any business, gifts or no gifts, he said. Promoting businesses to create jobs was part of his job as governor.

As for his wife’s activities, well,  she “had a crush” on Williams so she wanted to help the guy. What could possibly be wrong with that? She wasn’t a public official, was she? She certainly wasn’t doing it on the governor’s behalf. Their marriage was a total mess, and they were barely speaking to each other.

I know. Creepy, isn’t it?

As the soap opera unfolds, the media are predictably distracted by the juicy details.

Will the jury be distracted, too? Bob McDonnell is counting on it.

Click for the latest on the trial.

Click for details of the charges.


Justice for Foley?



In their preoccupation with the troubles in Ferguson, the media are underplaying another equally disturbing news story – the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the ISIS barbarians. As someone who made a living as a journalist, I am especially horrified, but I am sure any civilized human being must share my outrage.

I haven’t read or heard any comment from the President – or anyone in his administration – on America’s response to this affront.

The atrocity reminded me of the War of Jenkins Ear in the mid-1700s. The Spanish boarded Captain Robert Jenkins’ ship, the brig Rebecca, off the coast of Cuba and cut off one of his ears as a warning to the British against trading in the Caribbean.

The British declared war on Spain. The war ended inconclusively with the outbreak of the more far-reaching War of the Austrian Succession. And what happened to Jenkins? The history books don’t say.

I can understand why the British reacted as they did. I feel the same way about the beheading of Foley.

And I am not alone. Several US publications are demanding vengeance for the atrocity. The New York Post, for example,  declared that it’s “Time to Bomb Isis.”

I expect the voices of America’s war lobby will be clamoring even more loudly than before for US intervention in Syria. Several pundits (and the usual roster of politicians) have argued that air strikes in Iraq are inconsistent with President Obama’s policy of non-intervention in Syria. After all, they say, ISIS is as much Syrian as it is Iraqi.

But the voice of reason warns against an emotional response.

Isn’t that exactly what ISIS wants? Isn’t Foley’s beheading intended as an irresistible provocation? Islamic extremists do not seem to mind being blown to bits. They regard it as martyrdom and expect to be rewarded by Allah in the afterlife. They would relish a bloodbath involving American troops, regardless of the casualties they would incur.

I wonder what Foley would advocate. He was dedicated to exposing the misery of the Syrian people, according to a statement by his family. Would the escalation of violence alleviate that misery or aggravate it?

I am sure President Obama is horrified and infuriated by Foley’s barbaric execution, but he has to consider all the implications of a military response. It would undoubtedly be emotionally gratifying to launch a retaliatory assault on ISIS in Syria, but where would that lead?

The implications are complex. The stakes are astronomical – in treasure and in blood.

Undoubtedly, the President will increase the degradation of ISIS forces in Iraq, and the American people will support the attacks. But I doubt he will be lured into the Syrian quagmire.

James Foley’s memory will be best served by prudence – even as America seeks justice for his murder.

Photo shows Syrian residents acknowledging James Foley’s work to expose Assad and ISIS.

Click for more on James Foley.

Click for the British response.


Whose Facts Do You Trust?


A new study published in Social Science Quarterly confirms a suspicion I’ve had all along. The study finds that people develop “distorted factual beliefs” because of their views.

In other words, we subconsciously tend to accept “facts” that substantiate our beliefs.

And no, it’s not only Fox News (although they’re probably the world’s leading example). It’s basic human nature. Anyone who has had an argument with a spouse or lover will probably know what I mean.

The situation becomes diabolical when professionals make a living by using this instinct to promote propaganda. And that’s the way it is in America today.

Already, the spin machines are at work reconstructing the tragedy in Ferguson to suit one political agenda or another. I am sure you have your own version of what really happened in that wretched town, and it could be quite different from mine.

The demonizing of Michael Brown – the unarmed black teenager who was shot dead by white police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9 – is being countered by the demonizing of the local police, for example.

Meanwhile, the situation in Ferguson shows no sign of improving. CNN reports this morning that:

Stun grenades and tear gas canisters arced through the night sky and into crowds of protesters overnight in Ferguson, Missouri, after police said they had been targeted with rocks, Molotov cocktails and gunfire amid continuing demonstrations over the death of Michael Brown.

Two people were shot — not by police, authorities said. Four officers were injured. Police arrested at least 31 people.

The two sides seem to be drifting farther apart as the days go by. While supporters of the black protesters air their grievances not only in Ferguson but far and wide, supporters of the shooter are speaking out, too. CNN reports they held a rally in St. Louis this week, and “as of Tuesday, more than 500 people had donated in excess of $20,000 to a fund for Wilson.”

Both sides are clamoring for the truth to be told.  But what truth? Their truth, of course. And you can bet those two “factual” versions will have little in common.

Without the real truth, how can there be justice?

Perhaps the sooner the case goes to court the better. With witnesses testifying under oath, there’s a better chance of getting at what really happened on that fatal day in Ferguson.

I don’t see how anyone could argue that there’s not enough “probable cause” to file charges against Officer Wilson. But – hey – that’s just my understanding of the “facts.”

Click for the CNN report.

Click for more on the study.


What is Tyranny?

Police deploy tear gas to impose first night of curfew in Ferguson

When does keeping the peace become tyranny? It seems to me that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon may be crossing that line. Sending troops to quell rioters is a drastic move, and that’s what he is doing. Isn’t that what George III did back in the 1770s?

Wasn’t the American Revolution an occasion for looting and vandalism? You bet it was!

What makes that event a magnificent blow for freedom and the Ferguson riots a display of lawlessness?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the rioters in the 1770s were white and those in Ferguson are black?

Am I supporting the ugliness in Ferguson? No, I am not. I deplore the use of violence and I hope with all my heart that reason will prevail and that calm will be restored.

But do I understand why black American protesters might get out of hand? What reasonable person wouldn’t?

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

To an outside observer – and after 35 years in America I am still an outside observer –  the way Americans of color have been treated over so many years is astounding. Denied equal status both socially and economically, deprived of the vote, shunned by employers, quarantined by “white flight,” and gunned down with abandon at the slightest pretext …

How long would you put up with that kind of treatment?

I don’t know whether Michael Brown was a thug, as the Ferguson police are making him out to be. But that would not excuse the wanton way in which his life was snuffed out.

And I don’t think that’s the real reason for the fury in Ferguson.

It goes deeper than that.

It is the mestasis of a deadly cancer that has been festering for generations.

When there was looting and rioting in Egypt, Americans hailed it as the Arab Spring. When Assad turned his troops on protesters in Syria, Americans shrieked in outrage, and the President threatened to send in the drones.

Is it time to take the log out of our own eye?

Click for the situation in Ferguson.

Click for looting in the Revolutionary War.


Life in a Bubble

Today I will go to Publix, There’s no beer in the fridge, and the cats are running low on Fancy Feast (and the canned salmon I give them as a treat). Those cats! They live better than a lot of people.

I know you’re thinking why don’t we buy canned salmon for people? We do – kind of. We send money to Lighthouse Ministries, and donate to food drives. Not nearly enough of course. See what you’ve done? You’ve made me feel guilty.

But the cats are here where we can see their needs. Those needy people are out of sight, and, I suppose, out of mind.

We live in a bubble, Sandra and I. We sit on the breezeway and admire the lake as we sip our morning coffee. And we sit on the breezeway and watch the cats watching the sun go down.

The sun is shining today. Yesterday the sky was dark and it rained off and on, sometimes a drizzle, occasionally a downpour.

I played golf anyway – Julius and I. Two codgers dodging raindrops and grumbling at our flubbed shots. By the 13th hole, we had had enough. We decided to call it quits. We’ll be back on the golf course on Monday, God willing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, all hell is breaking loose. Islamic militants are rampaging and beheading and raping. The folks in Ferguson are protesting the apparent police disregard for the lives of black teenagers. And the pundits on TV are pontificating about it all, as usual.

Thank God there are golf tournaments to watch today. For me, anyway. Sandra will likely find relief in a Turner Classic Movie. That’s when she isn’t Swiffering – you can’t possibly imagine the cat fur she has to contend with! Or reading the local newspaper. She will probably be calling me any minute to share some outrageous letter to the editor. This part of Florida is Republican territory and the letters can be really ripe.

Maybe I’ll do some yard work. The garden is overgrown – ferns and Mexican petunias are smothering the other plants and the walkways are choked. I guess it’s because of all the rain we’ve been having.

Maybe I’ll sweep the patio. The rain unloads dirt and leaves and twigs on it faster than we can clean it.

Or maybe not.  The overgrown garden will be there tomorrow, and it will probably rain again this afternoon and mess up the patio.

Besides, I have to go to Publix.


This is the USA?

Click on the link below and watch the video, then tell me: Is this what you expect to witness in the United States of America?

Police fire on peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

Yes, that was the scene on Wednesday night in Ferguson, Missouri, USA – a town of about 25,000 people.

(By the way, isn’t it somehow symbolic that you had to watch a Walmart ad first?)

Now look at this picture:

How’s that for small-town America? Not exactly Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, is it?

Notice something else? The “liberal” Huffington Post web site is blaming President Obama!

Apparently, he’s the one militarizing the local police. It’s all his fault that St. Louis County’s police force rolled out the tanks when the natives got restless.

I’m sure there must be some basis for the accusation, but I don’t get it.

Isn’t Obama the guy who stepped in and cowed the governor of the state into taking local police off the case? Isn’t he the one in the video lamenting the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown?

It’s a strange, strange world we live in, all right.

One other question: Where were the armored vehicles and SWAT teams when white supremacist militias invaded the Bundy ranch in  Nevada? Who if anyone has been arrested for pointing loaded weapons at federal agents in that confrontation?

Is it a question of two kinds of law – one for black protesters and another for white militants?

Two-thirds of the population of Ferguson is black. Hardly any of the folks running the place – including the police force – are black.

Why? Nobody seems to know.

All I know is that this is not the America I had in mind when I raised my hand that day in Tampa, Florida three decades ago and swore allegiance to “the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”

Click for more on the Ferguson riots.


A World of Make Believe

pantomimeMore and more, this world of ours becomes a pantomime, a charade, a chiavari. Nothing is what it seems. Not even the “news.”

You will read about the power of “social media” in the press, and the TV pundits will talk of Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere as if they were the real “voice of the people.”

Of course the pundits are wrong. In fact, who knows whether they are real pundits or fakes? Many of the “experts” you see on TV are in the pocket of one special interest or another. Those impressively costumed generals, for example, who were on the Pentagon’s PR payroll. Remember?

It’s all a kind of astroturf, created by billionaires and their army of operatives, who are paid to write the comments and blogs and tweets and so on that news outlets rely on. Meanwhile “think tanks” professing to be dispassionate centers of scholarship find innovative ways to slant existing data to suit the ends of the folks who fund them.

Hour after hour, armies of hired hacks churn away at their keyboards, spewing out the propaganda that “the media” will mistake for news and genuine opinion.

Turn on the TV and you are fed the contrived arguments that we are meant to accept as reason. Even God’s blessing is on the block as those “religious” stations compete for our souls and our contributions.

So it should not surprise me that the Republican Party has come up with ersatz news sites as a new way of deceiving the American public. They are posting attack ads disguised as local news sites, and – here’s the diabolical part – paying Google to ensure these fake sites show up in search results.

An article in this morning credits the National Journal with exposing this latest scam. According to the article:

Not only do the sites look like a local news page, but the “articles” they feature are written with the authoritative and seemingly nonpartisan voice of real journalism.

So much for the “objectivity” they taught us in Journalism school.  Obviously, the techniques that make a news story seem objective can be used to mask propaganda as “news.” And as long as there are those who will betray their craft for the manipulators’ money, they will be used that way.

Ben Franklin wisely warned us to believe half of what we see and none of what we hear. Today, he would probably advise us to believe nothing.

Click for the story.


Yes, I Know How to Whistle

Actress Lauren Bacall, the husky-voiced Hollywood icon known for her sultry sensuality, died Tuesday, August 12. She was 89. Click through to take a look at the iconic actress' life.

One by one they go, the icons of our lives, the magical images that kept the stars shining in our eyes. Yesterday’s bad news was about Robin Williams; today it’s about Lauren Bacall. Robin Williams made us laugh. Lauren Bacall made us dream. Now, their passing makes us cry.

Lauren Bacall lives in my memory, of course, the willowy dream girl with the acerbic wit, the glamorous half of “Bogey and Bacall.” But she was so much more.

I was 10 years old when Bacall first lit up the silver screen. Living in Malvern, a hamlet on a Jamaican mountain top, where such amenities as movie theaters did not exist.  But once or twice a year, my dad would load the family into his old Ford and make the 100-mile pilgrimage to Kingston, where the Carib Theatre would usher us into a magical, twilight world of air conditioning and daydreams.

While World War II raged and the Ford was up on blocks because gasoline was rationed, we took the train, getting up before dawn to ride the Royal Mail van to the railway station. Nothing was going to keep us from our trips to the city.

Among the films we saw over the years were several starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I can see them now in “The Big Sleep,” Bogey jaded and hard-boiled, Bacall every inch his match. I don’t recall seeing “To Have and Have Not” but I must have because I can still hear her husky voice telling Bogey:

You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.

Of course, that line is so legendary that I could have unknowingly incorporated it into my memories without actually hearing it.  An old man’s memory plays tricks like that.

I don’t know if the films were great works of art. I don’t know whether Lauren Bacall was a great actress. She must have been. She won an Academy Award and a handful of Tony Awards for her stage performances.

But to me, her movies were far more than all of that. They were a part of my dreams, a part of my life, a part of my growing up.

And now she’s gone.

Click for the news story.

Click for more about Bacall.